“I tend to steer clear of all the reunion talk, because everything I say about it gets picked up by the Internet police,” Ray Davies, the leader of rock legends The Kinks and its principal songwriter, tells me during the first of two recent interviews when I asked him about the possibility of the band reuniting to celebrate its 50th anniversary and the state of his relationship with his brother Dave, the band’s lead guitarist and seeming holdout. “Dave is a great guitar player and a great musician. I’ve got tracks from the ‘70s and ‘80s—about 20, at least—plus I’ve been doing new tracks with Mick Avory, our original drummer. But Dave and Mick don’t get along, and I don’t really understand it. Dave and I put down a few demos last Christmas, including a couple of his new songs, but when it comes to playing as The Kinks I’ll really have to talk to Dave.”
Dave, on the other hand, doesn’t want to discuss a possible reunion when we meet, and is instead focused on his new album, Ripping Up Time.
“Ray and I are talking,” Dave Davies tells me. “But nothing’s planned.”
Fifty years ago, the Kinks revolutionized rock and roll with the band’s first hit “You Really Got Me.” Ray Davies’s first in a long line of signature songs, it was like a bolt of lightning when it hit the airwaves, first in the band’s home country England and then here in America. Unlike anything else on the radio, it was proto-punk, at odds with the polished songs of The Beatles and their contemporaries. “You Really Got Me” was raw and immediate, and its production, devoid of the reverb that soaked most records of the day, sounded direct and exciting. In just two minutes and 15 seconds, The Kinks had rewritten the rock and roll rulebook.
“We went to great lengths to get the sound of the record to the way we played live,” Ray Davies tells me of the band’s breakthrough track. “That was unusual at that time, but I took great care to do that. We recorded it once as a demo, then again at Pye Records, but it didn’t sound right. It was the third record of a three-single deal and we nearly lost our contract because I told them all I didn’t like the sound of the first two versions. I had the sound in my head. Dave and I wrote to this distorted sound through the amp, but getting that on record was a big issue. We’d get in the studio they’d tell us to turn the amps down, not up!”
“It was probably the third or fourth song I’d ever written,” Davies admits. “I’d written a few bad pop songs. When ‘You Really Got Me’ became a number one record in most of Europe people suddenly thought that I knew what I was doing. So I had to learn how to write songs. But I think if I had been an accomplished songwriter, I wouldn’t have written ‘You Really Got Me’ because there’s something naive and basic about it, with this key shift halfway through. If I’d been an accomplished songwriter I wouldn’t have written it in the key I did and I probably wouldn’t have made that shift, which was quite revolutionary but became common after we did it. I was experimenting. When I was young, I was very musically uneducated. Apart from singing in a choir, I didn’t have much education musically. I had guitar lessons from my friends, and a few piano lessons, but I was learning my own style, teaching myself in many respects. I didn’t have many rules. But it gave me my first number one record.”
Hot on the heels of the instant classic “You Really Got Me,” The Kinks churned out timeless gems like “Stop Your Sobbing,” “All Day And All of the Night,” “Till The End of The Day,” “A Well Respected Man,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Dead End Street,” “David Watts,” “Autumn Almanac,” “Days,” “Picture Book," and “The Village Green Preservation Society.”
Of course both The Essential Kinks and The Anthology include perhaps the greatest pop song ever written, the timeless “Waterloo Sunset.”
“It’s a beautiful spot,” Ray Davies tells me of the area of London that inspired his most celebrated song. “It’s a district in London where they have a big train station. It’s in the middle of London near the Houses of Parliament. The Waterloo area has played a very important part in my life. I think many people have that sort of feeling about a special place in their lives, and that’s a special spot for me.”
“You know, I’ve got a saying: ‘My subconscious is smarter than I am,’" Davies says when I ask him how he came to write the song, one that he performed at the closing ceremonies when London hosted the Olympics in 2012. “When I write I draw on many emotions and memories from my past and present. And sometimes, as in ‘Waterloo Sunset,’ it’s about the future. So all the elements are there. And that’s, I think, the magical thing you can do with song.”
“It’s a sad song,” Dave Davies says of “Waterloo Sunset.” “I think our best songs typically combine humor and pathos to make a real poignancy. That song is reflective, but it’s also a very lonely song. Ray, even when he was young, he seemed often a lot older than his years. Especially in those first crazy years, when I was out partying. He was sort of sitting around like my dad. I think (his inspiration) was a combination of his seriousness and worry.”
There’s also long line of exciting releases on the way under a new deal with Sony, including high resolution digital releases of The Kinks’ catalog from the early 1970s onwards, and the recently released expanded version of 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies.
“Muswell Hillbillies was a complete reinvention,” Ray Davies tells me of the album that reintroduced The Kinks to America in a big way. “It was the first real record that we made after our ban from performing in America was lifted. We’d been banned in the mid-‘60s, as I like to say, due to a mixture of bad management, bad luck, and bad behavior resulting in a union ban. We couldn’t work in America for nearly four years. But with that album I went back to my roots. It’s like a rock documentary in many respects.”
The expanded edition of Muswell Hillbillies is newly remastered from the original analog tapes, and includes the original album in its entirety as well as nine bonus tracks (seven of them previously unavailable), alongside a DVD of rare 1972 television appearances. There’s also a superb vinyl version.
“Muswell Hillbillies is to me one of our key albums,” Dave Davies tells me when we meet for several hours in New York City recently. “It uses a lot of different blends of genres of music. I liked the mix. And there’s a lot of emotion.”
When I press Dave Davies for his feelings on playing again as The Kinks, he immediately raises the infamous brotherly rivalry between him and Ray that ultimately caused the implosion of the band in 1996.
“People forget that in a family you get used to a way of acting around each other,” Dave says. “You get used to a certain level of abuse. I’ve seen engineers cower when Ray and I have gone at it in the recording studio, just completely unsure of what to make of it. And then it would pass and we’d carry on—as though nothing had happened—and they’d be completely floored that we could do that.”
For his part, Ray Davies seems more hopeful, if a bit nostalgic.
“The thing about The Kinks is that I’m a really big fan,” Ray, who plans to tour the States later this year behind a new album based on lyrics from his recent book Americana, says when we speak for the last time, just after the New Year. “The Kinks always defied genre. We were our own genre. We were unpredictable and our music was really varied.”
“But I’m hopeful,” he says, as we wrap up. “You know, the dream continues.”